Sunday, February 12, 2012

Caspar David Friedrich freezes up on our shore


I have to admit, it was Bree Zorel's hilarious photographs of mini-bergs--tiny accumulations of snow around Halifax, each one resembling a minor iceberg--that started me wondering, "and what do the pans of ice that stack up on our shore look like?"

Because I'm much more serious than Bree is (well, in demeanor only; a comedic artist is really about as serious as one can get, and that's what she is), my thoughts turned instantly to romantic images of ships stuck fast in the ice. (Ah, the tragedy, the mockery of human ambition, the dashing of the well-laid plan! You see how German philosophy fits me like a glove. I'm steeped in it and cannot get these tea stains out of my head.)

In particular, I thought of Caspar David Friedrich (a Swede by birth, a fact that did not exempt him from darkening romantic thoughts; he too received German training and is usually considered German), and of that painting known variously as The Wreck of the Hope, The Polar Sea, and The Sea of Ice.  Completed in 1824, during a period of great despair in the painter's life, the work was not particularly well-received.  Even contemporary commentators have described it as overwrought--a work that "goes beyond documentary into allegory: the frail bark of human aspiration crushed by the world's immense and glacial indifference." (This is, itself, quite dramatic wringing commentary--was the painter ever particularly "documentary" in ambition or execution? Really?)

But there we are. I have my model, such as it is, for what this ice resembles, and what--perhaps--it means.

Do you see the Hope there, a dark shape, a crushed and splintered ship to the right of the largest stack-up of slabs of ice? That it will founder is a conclusion we cannot avoid. Still, how beautiful the ice!

Caspar David Friedrich, Wreck of the Hope, 1823-4, Kunsthalle, Hamburg

Caspar David Friedrich freezes up on our shore, a set on Flickr. To see enlargements of the photographs, click on each one.

Quote about Friedrich's painting comes from "Art: the Awe-Struck Witness," Time, October 28, 1974.

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